THE statement was terse but its import was great. Late on the evening of November 25th in Havana, Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, announced that his elder brother, Fidel, “commander-in-chief of the Cuban revolution”, had died at the age of 90.

Cubans woke up to the prospect of life without the man who dominated them and their country for more than half a century. In Miami, the dwindling hard core of anti-Castro exiles took to the streets of the district known as Little Havana in celebration. They had done so several times before over the past decade on rumours of his death. This time it was real.    

Fidel’s death will be marked by nine days of official mourning in Cuba and by recognition around the world of his extraordinary achievement in turning his small country into a pocket superpower that defied the United States for decades. Many others will hope that Cuban communism will die with Fidel. For all its achievements in health care and education, it has impoverished the island and deprived generations of Cubans of freedoms and opportunities.

Since Fidel stepped down from Cuba’s presidency when he was taken ill in 2006, Raúl Castro has cautiously begun to reform the island’s sclerotic centrally planned economy. More than 500,000 Cubans now work on their own account in small businesses. The share of state-owned enterprises in economic output has fallen to 71%. But the pace of reform, never rapid, has slowed in the past two years. That is partly because Raúl has had to deal with internal opposition to his bold agreement with Barack Obama to restore diplomatic relations with the United States after a half-century of rupture.

From his retirement compound in the western suburbs of Havana, Fidel spent the past decade acting as a brake on reform. Unlike Raúl, he dislikes the “market socialism” of China and Vietnam. He made no secret of his distaste of the rapprochement with the United States and Mr Obama’s visit to Cuba in March. In his last public appearance, at the Cuban Communist Party’s seventh congress in April, Fidel hinted that he would soon die but insisted “the ideas of Cuban communists will endure”. He was a symbolic leader for many in the party and the state bureaucracy who are terrified that change will rob them of their job security, perks and privileges.

Fidel’s departure thus removes the biggest single obstacle to change in Cuba. It comes at a moment of great uncertainty for the island. For the past dozen years its economy was propped up by subsidies from Venezuela, mainly in the form of near-free oil. With the collapse of Venezuela’s economy, that aid has been cut. Cuba’s economy grew by only 1% in the first half of this year, less than half the official forecast. That strengthens the case for speeding up reform.

The second uncertainty concerns the impending presidency of Donald Trump in the United States. Once a supporter of ending the economic embargo against Cuba, in the final weeks of the election campaign Mr Trump called for the reversal of the diplomatic opening to the island. Whether Mr Trump’s dealmaking instincts will prompt him to flip again on Cuba policy remains to be seen. Raúl responded to his victory by declaring five days of military exercises.

Fidel’s death is the most important milestone in the slow transition to a post-Castro, and perhaps post-communist, Cuba. Raúl has said he will step down as president in 2018, though he may remain as first secretary of the Communist Party for a further three years. He has groomed Miguel Díaz-Canel, a 56-year-old former education minister, as his successor. It is unclear how big a role the armed forces, forged and long commanded by Raúl, will play in the transition. His declared intention is that Cuba should remain a one-party state, even as it moves towards a mixed economy. But Fidel’s departure from the scene may unleash a much freer debate in Cuba about the island’s future.

Further reading
Obituary: The life and times of Fidel Castro
Timeline: Fidel Castro, 1926-2016
The mood in Havana